War Crimes and the Karadzic Trials

War crimes tribunals are a public theater of accountability, retribution, and hoped-for healing.  Victims and survivors bear witness as metaphorical, and often metaphysical, Greek choruses.

Up next is Radovan Karadzic, in the box  for the Srebrenica genocide, the Siege of Sarajevo, the creation of concentration camps, and other war crimes committed against Bosnian Muslims and Croats that left tens of thousands dead.

The trial begins today, October 26th  (although Karadzic made headlines this morning when he refused to attend — the proceedings have been suspended until tomorrow), and is being run by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which the U.N. set up in 1993.

You may remember that Karadzic was arrested in July of 2008; he had assumed a new identity as an expert on alternative medicine.  As Dragan David Dabic, he was hidden in plain but facially-transformed sight.  Disguised by a beard and ponytail, he gave lectures in front of hundreds. 

The prosecution is expected to take two years to make its case; the trial of Slobodan Milosevic for similar crimes stumbled on for four years (he died before a decision was reached). Milosevic defended himself and refused to recognize the court’s legitimacy; the proceedings often descended into dishonorable farce, with antics Judge Judy would never tolerate. 

Karadzic will go pro se, too, and he also disputes the court’s jurisdiction.  So given the likely attenuation at The Hague, you’ll have plenty of time to work your way through this “Reading the Headlines” list.   Sadly, there is a tragic library from which to choose.  

I’ve included books that provide a historical context for the Bosnian strategy.  Others take on genocide, the public dispensing of justice, and the ideologies of retribution and catharsis.  Some are imaginative reckonings of the unimaginable.

To End a War, Richard Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke — now Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan — was President Clinton’s Balkan envoy and was largely responsible for the Dayton Agreements that ended the Bosnian conflict.   

Filter out the self-serving layer, and this is a sharply-etched account of the politics and personalities whose final public chapter is being played out with the Karadzic trial.

Holbrooke’s life embodies its own ethnic muddles and complexities. He was born Jewish — both his parents fled the Nazis — but his parents became atheists and he was raised nominally Quaker.  His third and current wife, Kati Marton, is the author of the recent Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America, which recounts the tribulations of her Hungarian-Jewish parents during the Communist period.

Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder

“He was thronged by memories” writes Tracy Kidder of Deogratias, a Burundian medical student who endured “Six months on the run, first from the eruption of violence in Burundi, then from the slaughter in Rwanda.”

Published earlier this year to deserved acclaim, this improbable narrative is spare, emotionally dignified, and hence all the more devastating.  Kidder recounts Deo’s improbable ascension from penniless immigrant to American citizen who returns to his home to build a clinic.  Kidder has spent so much time with Deo that you soon come to believe his authorial colonization of the young man’s mind. 

Arriving at JFK, Deo is jolted by the busy indifference that must defy the imagination of every genocidal refugee, whether from Burundi or Bosnia: “These were people just going about their business, greeting their friends and their families, as if they didn’t know there were places where dogs were trotting around with human heads in their mouths.”

Enemy of the State, Michael A. Newton and Michael P. Scharf

Iraq was an ungovernable mess in October 1995, when the trial of Saddam Hussein began.  Newton and Wolf advised the State Department during the nine-month ordeal, and this insider account captures the mix of high drama and hijinks that made Judge Ito’s O. J. courtroom look like that of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. 

The Americans and Iraqis had great hopes that the trial would be a galvanizing national moment.   But it never achieved the political ends that were intended.  Newton and Scharf write that  “Iraqi politicians risked the future of their country on a bold gambit — they believed that creating the tribunal and holding televised and transparent proceedings would help the country move forward into a new and better era.”

Genocide on Trial: War Crimes and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory, Donald Bloxham

Bloxham is a Professor of Modern History at the University of Edinburgh, and his revisionist work deconstructs the myth of Nuremberg as a successful effort to educate, punish, and create a structure for remembrance.

A review in the “International Journal of Law and Context” notes that Bloxham harshly describes the trial’s “failure to make central the Holocaust.”  He is also unflinching about “the jurisprudential efforts to exculpate the Wehrmacht”, and fingers U.S. capitalists who were “uneasy…about trying industrialists.” 

He is no more optimistic about the Karadzic trial, telling me in an email:

“It’s intrinsically important that war criminals are brought to account, and a particular symbolic importance attaches to this case. However, contrary to what is often claimed of such trials, we should not expect them to provide catharsis for the victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity, or to force-pace the slow and painful process by which post-genocidal societies come to terms with their past (if they ever do, which is by no means guaranteed).”

Bloxham also recommends Mark Osiel’s Mass Atrocity, Collective Memory and the Law and The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial, 1963-1965: Genocide, History and the Limits of the Law. The latter is about a little-known sequel to Nuremberg, a series of trials of lower-level functionaries including members of the SS and those in charge of “selection.”

Eichmann In Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt

The New Yorker sent political theorist (she abjured the description “philosopher”) Hannah Arendt to cover the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann.    Her dispatches became the basis of this 1963 book, with her implacable coinage “the banality of evil” entering the language as a clear-eyed shorthand for the human animal’s unspectacular, self-justifying capacity for murderous acts.

Long after Arendt’s book, her observations were confirmed by the 2005 publication of the Nuremberg Interviews by Leon Goldensohn, an Army psychiatrist assigned to the trials who “tried to coax childhood memories from the men, seeking early motivations for later monstrousness, and found little to go on. Most were ordinary people.”

The Eichmann trial and Arendt’s observations inspired Stanley Milgram to conduct what might be the most famous social experiment of all time. Milgram gave ordinary people the power to deliver electric shocks to those who failed simple memory tasks, and the chilling results were published in Obedience to Authority.

The Nuremberg Legacy: How the Nazi War Crimes Trials Changed the Course of History, Norbert Ehrenfreund

Ehrenfreund covered the trials for The Stars and Stripes, and went on to be a judge in the Superior Court of California.  So his book naturally tilts towards the legal legacy of Nuremberg, but it’s a useful analysis of the way that the proceedings shaped subsequent perspectives on victim’s rights, medical ethics, and the moral obligations of corporations.

The Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon

Hemon, a MacArthur “Genius” grant winner, left Sarajevo to visit Chicago at age 28, and when war broke out in his homeland he remained here.

A writer in Yugoslavia, an unplanned immigrant here, Hemon held a series of jobs which included — according to Wikipedia — “Greenpeace canvasser, sandwich assembly-line worker, bike messenger, graduate student in English literature, bookstore salesperson, and ESL teacher.”

The Lazarus Project — a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award —  is the first-person story of Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian author who ends up in Chicago, marries a neurosurgeon, and receives a grant to write about the suggestively named Lazarus Averbuch. 

Averbuch, an historical figure, escaped the Kishinev program and in doppelganger-ish fashion ended up in Chicago in 1908, where, during an unexplained visit to the Chief of Police, he was killed.

A time not unlike our own, the period was steeped in terror — fear of anarchists had panicked the city — and the book makes much of the post 9/11 parallels.

Hemon writes with supreme vernacular confidence and has often been compared to Conrad and Nabokov, other English-come-lately novelists.  But writing of Hemon in The New Yorker, the critic James Wood says that “The feat of [Hemon’s] reinvention exceeds the Russian’s.”

Pair “The Lazarus Project” with the debut novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic.

Synchroncity warning:  the young Bosnian refugee at the center of the novel is named Aleksandar, and his fevered, stream-of-conscious recollections inspired a stream of knock-out reviews when the book appeared in May.